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"I said, ‘Well, I can feel it.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you look?’ And I looked and I said, ‘Nope, it’s not there.’ And he said, ‘That’s what they call phantom pains.’" (Video Interview, 28:49)

   James M. Mayer
Collection image
James Mayer [2003]
War: Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Branch: Army
Unit: 25th Infantry Division
Service Location: Vietnam
Rank: Specialist
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James Mayer graduated from college in his native Missouri in 1968 and decided to enlist in the Army before he would inevitably be drafted. He received orders for Vietnam in January 1969 as part of the 25th Infantry Division. He was confident he’d escape without injury—until a man 15 feet away from him died in a firefight. Two months into his tour, he stepped on a land mine. In such shock that he felt no initial pain, he could see how badly mangled his legs were. Both were amputated below the knee. Mayer praises the medical treatment he received during his long recovery. Early on, he told a nurse he was so happy just to survive that he was going to throw an Alive Day Party every April 25th, the day he was injured. Mayer came home to become an advocate for veterans, working for both the VA and the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Interview (Video)
»Interview Highlights  (9 clips)
» Part 1 
Download: video (84 min.)
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 Video (Interview Excerpts) (9 items)
The "old man" in his platoon at 23; only people in his company his age were officers; was on the move a lot in III Corps; main mission was to patrol, secure villages; spoke to locals through a "Kit Carson," captured Vietcong who had switched sides. (04:08) Contact with enemy on his second night; attack hit medics treating civilians as part of the MEDCAP program; usually got hit at night after they'd dropped their weapons; mortared a lot when they were on the move; surprised with daylight raids; aware of enemy using tunnels but not of their extent. (02:02) Didn't think anything would happen to him at first; when someone died 15 feet away from him, that changed his way of thinking; three elements bothered him: heat, dirt, fire ants; going to sleep on an ant hill and waking up in pain; lack of sleep. (03:36)
Two months and one day in, stepped on a land mine; conscious the whole time; remembers yelling “Oh no!” as he flew into the air; in such shock that he wasn't feeling the pain, even though he could see how badly mangled his legs were; mine was an American mortar shell that was a dud; enemy had rewired it; progress of his immediate treatment; feeling phantom pain in his missing legs; praises Army medical personnel; gave him choice of amputee centers; went to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio for 9 months. (06:27) Details on his physical and emotional healing; before he was hurt, said he would kill himself if he ever got maimed; now happy to be alive; told a nurse he was going to throw an Alive Day party every year on April 25, the day he was injured; if someone in the amputee ward was whining he would find a baby bottle on his nightstand; he passed it on to the next guy who started whining; the camaraderie made the sacrifice worth it, no matter whether the cause was just. (08:01) Immediate postwar adjustment; back to college, got involved with the Vets Club, which was about getting everybody's VA benefits taken care of; led to presidency of National Association of Collegiate Veterans; moved to Washington, DC in June 1972, dropping the plan for grad school; lived for two years off his vets’ benefits; VA denied a lot of the problems existed; "We were the first national organization to pursue and testify for psychological readjustment counseling." That fight took ten years; out of every war, there is a veterans’ health issue that is argued about for at least a decade; was lucky to have support from family and community, which many Vietnam vets didn’t; WWII and Vietnam vets not seeing eye to eye; VA needing to consider each generation of vets on their own. (07:16)
Highlights of his career at VA; turned around VA's attitude toward Vietnam vets; gives Max Cleland credit for some of that; a lot of changes in VA. (02:26) Difference between coming home as a Vietnam vet and as a disabled vet; physical disability was tough on his family and friends; around the country, it wasn't easy to be a Vietnam vet for at least 20 years. (01:15) Importance of support during rehab; had he been alone, he might have become very antisocial. (01:01)

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  October 26, 2011
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